Samsung Bixby: Do We Need Another Assistant?

Samsung Bixby

Samsung Bixby

If Samsung has its way, you’ll be using ‘Bixby’ on your new phone later this month. In conjunction with the launch of its S8 and S8 Plus handsets, Samsung announced a new digital assistant, and thinks traveling a different path will help it stand out in a crowded space.

Bixby wasn’t built to be a Siri clone, and it doesn’t have the partnerships to keep up with Alexa, so it’s relying on being unique. Dr. Injong Rhee, Bixby’s father at Samsung, tells The Verge: “The persona for Bixby that we’re pursuing is a bright sidekick, a much more friendly agent to users. Bixby is capable of developing a new interface to our devices, or devices that are going to host Bixby. Our perspective is to make the interface of the phone simpler and more natural to use.”

At Samsung’s launch event for the S8, it showed off Bixby’s various capabilities. Though limited, the platform can use image recognition to find similar items online, and be accessed via voice or touch; it has a dedicated hardware button on the S8 and S8 Plus. Samsung thinks this makes Bixby easier to use:

Another example of removing friction will be the dedicated Bixby button that will be located on the side of our next device. Confusion around activating a voice interface is a barrier we have removed to make it feel easier and more comfortable to give commands. For example, instead of taking multiple steps to make a call – turning on and unlocking the phone, looking for the phone application, clicking on the contact bar to search for the person that you’re trying to call and pressing the phone icon to start dialing – you will be able to do all these steps with one push of the Bixby button and a simple command.

Apple’s Siri digital assistant on macOS.

Is Bixby Even Necessary?

Distilled to its purest form, Bixby is another digital assistant you launch from your phone that can perform web searches and recognize (some) items using the camera. Samsung says it can translate 52 languages (Siri can do about 30), though it’s not clear how good that translation is. Bixby has some differentiators, though maybe not enough.

Image recognition is a clever use-case, and something Google Assistant and Siri just don’t do well (or at all). Samsung may not have hit it out of the park here, either. From Gizmodo:

We pointed the phone at a backpack and it instantly found bags a similar color. But Bixby is not infallible. We tried to get it to look at a Samsung Galaxy S8, at the time still a device made up of leaks and rumors, and it struggled to identify itself, and instead pulled up the ancient LG G2.

Ouch.

Samsung also promises Bixby will let users be more productive by allowing them to seamlessly use voice or touch inside applications. In theory, that could mean messaging multiple people; if you were typing a message to a friend, responding to your mother’s incoming chat notification via voice while typing might be possible.

Perhaps the biggest promise Samsung is making has to do with context. It says Bixby “will be smart enough to understand commands with incomplete information and execute the commanded task to the best of its knowledge, and then will prompt users to provide more information and take the execution of the task in piecemeal.” Doing this helps reduce the learning curve of using a new assistant, says Samsung, when remembering commands or phrases can be cumbersome.

Alexa Echo with Alexa

Samsung, Bixby and Developers

All told, Samsung is right: We probably don’t want to bark at our phones all the time to launch an assistant, and pointing a camera at something to figure out what it is seems like something every digital assistant should have mastered by now (considering how much image scanning Google and Apple do). We also forget exactly what we want to do in the moment, and a good assistant would try to meet you halfway when you fail.

Samsung is saying all the right things. “Bixby is at the heart of our software and services evolution as a company,” it writes. “We are fundamentally and conceptually changing our attitude toward software and services and working hard on innovation throughout all aspects of our mobile ecosystem.” Still, it’s burying the feature halfway down the Galaxy S8 landing page as an aside.

The lynchpin in all of this will be developer involvement, and the numbers there may not add up. We can immediately forget half of the U.S. market for Bixby because they’re iPhone users. The rest will need both a brand new Samsung Galaxy S8 or S8 Plus and a reason to want to use Bixby. While Samsung sells plenty of phones, the margin of Bixby users will be razor-thin.

It’s a tough sell in a time when Amazon’s Alexa is gobbling up real estate in our homes and Google Assistant is widening its scope to encompass more of Android via apps such as Allo (and as a boilerplate feature for Android Marshmallow and Nougat).

Moreover, Samsung takes the Apple route when it comes to developers. It has its own developer conference, and doesn’t play outside of its sandbox. Developers must target Samsung devices, not Android.

Samsung also ditches struggling software with ease and aplomb. Its music and video services were trumpeted as competitive and uniquely useful for Samsung users, then shuttered once the company realized Google Play and YouTube really were useful for Samsung users. Bixby might be fun, but user confidence is questionable.

We also don’t know what Bixby tools Samsung will make available to developers. Is localization handled automatically, or do developers need to implement a new API for each language they want Bixby to support for apps? Will it have ‘skills’ like Alexa, or is Samsung going to want to peek at code to parse what Bixby can do with an app?

How serious Samsung is about Bixby long-term and for developers will be the litmus test. Apple, Amazon and Google all lean on their assistants as cornerstones of a broader business model. Samsung seems to be toying with the concept.

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